The magic of Mark Cousins – One man’s film guru and another man’s irritating dilettante

Karlovy Vary 2015: How to explain the magic and the peril of charismatic DIY filmmaker Mark Cousins? What is it about the charismatic personality that divides us into disciples and decriers? I met the ‘legend’ and watched some of his films at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. I’m ready to take a stab at it – the explanation, not the man. No, really!

Love him or hate him – and all seem to have a strong opinion one way or the other – Mark Cousins is hard to ignore. First of all, he’s everywhere. He’s a prodigious and prolific talent and, more than that, he’s a kind of shaman of film. Cousins is a film lover, first and foremost. The film making came later, allowing him to channel the good news about the wonders of cinema in a way that makes zealots or heretics of us all. Well, I just met him for a wee chat at his favourite film festival in Karlovy Vary, in the Czech Republic, and now I’m a believer. What follows is nevertheless no disciple’s Cant: I come here to contribute to our understanding of Cousins (the man as well as the phenomenon), not to worship him.

I’d been slotted into quite a busy interview-schedule, so I figured I’d better check how long we had. Mark obligingly consults the paperwork, ‘I’ll see what it says here… It says 20 minutes.’ Isn’t this a typical Mark Cousins moment? I believe it may even cast some light on the character of his divided public reception. He’s being terribly gracious, of course, but he’s also engaged in impression management, adopting a position of neutrality in relation to ‘the powers that be.’ Here he could be criticised for drawing attention to the power of the authorities and downplaying his own, the classic complaint of the political Right against the political Left.

Consider then how Cousins positions himself as a filmmaker: as the ordinary man, the conscientious dissenter, the maverick, the progressive spirit, in other words, the usual tropes of the liberal voice. Such is the dominant cadence of self-consciously independent film, and it brings us to the real nub of the matter. Ultimately it all comes down to voice – both literally and metaphorically – and however we may try to categorise it, nobody has a voice quite like Mark Cousins.

Mark Cousins at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, 2015.
Mark Cousins at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, 2015.

I’m of course acutely conscious of that inimitable voice in the here and now, as I sit down for a parlay with the man himself! In some ways it’s the easiest interview in the world because my subject loves to talk. But it’s more than that. He’s also damned good at it. Nobody can talk like Cousins, and before we get to the substance of what he actually says, in general, or, more specifically, in this interview, we need to examine this very important fact a little more closely.

First of all, it can’t be overlooked that he just plain sounds good. Cousins is very pleasant to listen to and this is partly down to his voice in the most literal sense – the soft timbre of his larynx, his round vowels and gentle but precisely enunciated consonants, as shaped by that pleasant Northern Irish brogue. It’s not just that obviously. Would so many stick out the whole 15 hours of The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011), for example, on these grounds alone?

I’m not only thinking about those who picked up the documentary series an episode at a time on TV, which is impressive enough. The whole shooting-match was also shown in its monumental entirety, in large blocks, at the Toronto International Film Festival of 2013. Those who completed the unlikely marathon are reputed to have earned the honour of a mock certificate, presented by the filmmaker himself.

Clearly, sounding nice is not enough on its own. As the interview demonstrates he is also a fluent speaker, erudite and apparently unburdened by the hesitations and verbal stumbles that tend to afflict the rest of us. Much more than that, he does actually have something to say, and if you’re the least bit interested in film (and maybe even if you’re not), then you will be interested enough to listen.

Mohsen Makhmalbafs «A Moment of Innocence».
Mohsen Makhmalbafs «A Moment of Innocence».

His love of movies has made him informed, but more importantly we feel the love through his highly infectious enthusiasm, and this is the principal source of Cousins’s charm – for some at least. Love him or hate him, he does have a kind of charisma, actually the kind famously discussed by the sociologist, Max Weber, who identifies its historical foundations in religious mysticism. What lends an individual charisma is that she seems to channel a force or message from beyond: she is touched by God and God speaks through her. She is, quite literally, enchanted as well as enchanting. Is it not fair to say that Cousins is enchanted with the ineffable, incandescent spirit of moving pictures?

Just as we may feel we can trust a charismatic politician, so it is with our film guru. Okay, we may be a little sceptical that some latest hot tip from Iranian cinema is positively the greatest thing since Citizen Kane, but we dismiss his recommendations at our peril. He is a true disciple of film; he knows that of which he speaks.

On the subject of Iranian films, one of these was his official recommendation at this very festival. Indeed he was able to have it screened as part of a new programme called ‘Six Close Encounters,’ where six acclaimed directors each present a work that means a lot to them, and that they would like to share with a festival audience. Cousins chose Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s A Moment of Innocence (1996), a classic in its own way from the Iranian New Wave, but probably unfamiliar to most international audiences. It’s not Babe (1995) – to mention one other selection.

A Moment of Innocence is classic Mark Cousins: no easy watch but absolutely worth the effort. You soon discover Makhmalbaf is a kind of master, pushing the boundaries of what film as a medium can achieve – and all on a shoestring budget, naturally. It’s a film which reflects back on its own modus operandi and, in so doing, interrogates the very nature of human perception and memory and, for that matter, what we count as real.

Mohsen Makhmalbafs «A Moment of Innocence».
Mohsen Makhmalbafs «A Moment of Innocence».

The director allows an old adversary to film his own version of a violent encounter they had shared many years before. We watch the emergence and mutation of two different stories, two competing ‘realities,’ in the process of their filmic construction. The results are funny, intriguing and disturbing by turns. The medium of film is used in a uniquely direct and self-conscious way to explore the relationship between perspective, memory and desire.

Given the merits of Cousins’s work, why then does he provoke in some commentators and pundits such a negative reaction? In this regard I think it is helpful to rephrase the question. We might rather ask: How is he able to make the kind of films he does and still elicit such a positive response from so many? Or still more pointedly: how does he get away with it? Before we can possibly answer this question, we will have to render it more intelligible by taking a closer look at his oeuvre. What kind of film is he making exactly?

Cousins is hailed as a kind of pioneer of the film-essay as a distinct and recognisable genre. It may not be his own invention but he has pretty much come to own it, taking a category associated with the world of literature and letters, and seeking its imaginative reformulation in more filmic terms. Whatever you might think of the results, nobody else makes films quite like these. They are essentially discourses on a topic or theme in the language of moving pictures, but they are also discourses in a more literal sense. There is invariably plenty of Mark’s own, distinctive commentary accompanying the images. In this way we are led through his own, highly personal reflections, and admitted into the world of Mark Cousins.

He has said (and shown us!) on more than one occasion – on and off camera – that a good filmmaker must be prepared to be naked. He said so once more during our interview (throughout which he remained fully clothed). Yet actually he goes much further than this. We seem practically to be invited inside his head, to feel that, at least for a moment, we share his view of the world, that we actually see it through his eyes. It’s a strange and sometimes exhilarating process.

Mark Cousins («The First Movie»).
Mark Cousins («The First Movie»).

A good example is The First Movie from 2013. In proper DIY-style, with practically no crew, Mark heads off to Kurdish Iraq to cover life after the war. It’s pretty much one man and a movie-camera – or at any rate cameras, plural – on location. Why did he take this approach? The reason is simple, as Cousins relates, «It started because I went to Iraq and all the cinematographers were scared, so I thought, ‘I’ll try and shoot it myself’.»

The film revolves around the children of a war-traumatised Kurdish village and especially how they come to express themselves with the help of the language of film, not least by letting them loose with cameras. This focus doesn’t prevent The First Movie from being a highly personal film. In one memorable moment Cousins draws a comparison with his own experience of growing up in war-torn Belfast. Thus we understand better how he sees his subjects and the existential foundations of his sympathetic reading. We learn about the Kurdish children but we also learn a little about the man with the movie-camera.

Cousins understands what it means to be ‘naked’ as a filmmaker. It’s a risky business; you make yourself vulnerable. Risk-taking brings its own rewards, however. As an essayist (and a kind of auteur) the filmmaker inevitably portrays himself in the effort to express or convey something of value for others. No such portrayal of identity will go uncontested. The conspicuous centrality of the film-making subject ensures that he is more certain to provoke than he is to engage his audience. It is the latter objective that nonetheless makes the enterprise worth the struggle, and I believe Cousins has enjoyed some notable triumphs, of which The First Movie must certainly count as one.

«I Am Belfast».
«I Am Belfast».

His more recent work nevertheless suggests a change of direction. He seems increasingly inclined to reach out, form collaborations, and thus recede a little more into the background. The innovative Life May Be (2013) took the form of an exchange of filmic letters with acclaimed Iranian director Maria Akbari. This year’s submission to the documentary-film competition; I Am Belfast, entailed close collaboration with cinematographer Christopher Doyle, as well as actress Helena Bereen, who served as the film’s principal narrator.

Such developments may reflect exposure to criticism for over-saturating his work with his own ‘voice.’ Indeed, he is quick to defend a current work-in-progress, described as a musical-fiction film, in these terms: «People think I always use commentary. There’s no commentary. People think I’m always in my films. I’m not in this one.» The current radical diversification of the Cousins ‘brand’ is also a product of success, of course. Budgets have clearly grown and people are practically queuing up for the opportunity to work with him. As Cousins put it, «I made a lot of films on my own because it was the only way I could make films – no-one was chucking money at me.»

I Am Belfast is arguably his most successful work to date. The imagery is impressive and virtually seamless, considering the camera-work was shared with Christopher Doyle. The director himself characterises the film as a magical-realist essay, and certainly it pushes the boundaries of the essay as a fact-based form. Urban documentation gives ground to poetic reflection upon, and inspiration drawn from, the town, its life and its history – warts and all.

«I Am Belfast».
«I Am Belfast».

There is fictionalisation at work here but little in the way of a conventional story. This obviously reflects the filmmaker’s reservations about narrative, which he describes as ‘a big bully-boy,’ destructive of the ‘sense of time and the moment,’ which film at its best is able to provide. Cousins’s preferences turn out to be particularly helpful where the subject-matter of I Am Belfast is concerned. The film makes an affecting call for reconciliation in the face of the city’s troubled history precisely by avoiding the divisive pitfalls of storytelling or analysis. A more lyrical register substitutes abstractions and mythic metaphors for descriptions or prognoses.

The city’s river-mouth location, for example, entails a meeting-point between sea and fresh-water or, as expressed on film, between ‘salt and sweet.’ These can blend together but they may also clash. When they do, as in the time of ‘The Troubles,’ it’s as though the shipbuilding home of the Titanic has itself been hit by an iceberg. Thus the metaphors abound. They provide conceptual resting-places for the turmoils of the past, and give call to a certain poetic, melancholic equanimity in the face of our differences.

All in all Cousins has made it his business to go out on a limb, to take chances, and thus place himself in the centre of the action. In so doing he makes himself an easy target. Those who react negatively to his personal filmic presence are often also swift to associate what Brian Doan describes as «the grating timbre of Cousins’ narration» with a scholarly dilettantism and documentary sloppiness unbefitting the scale of his ambition. Such are the dissenting voices. So many more find the brogue more appealing than grating, and admire his audacity. They care little for the film scholars who may wince at the errors of detail or blithe reinvention of the epistemological wheel.

Only later (and so typically!), after the dust had settled from my 20-minute rollercoaster ride of an interview, did I hit upon the question I really should have asked. Mind you, it was really more of a statement masquerading as a rhetorical question, the kind lawyers like to pose to hostile witnesses. But then who wouldn’t like to pose an unanswerable question to the irrepressibly garrulous Mark Cousins?

It goes something like this: «You do realise there’s nobody else on this planet who could get away with making films like these?» I’m confident he would have found a way to answer my rhetorical question had it ever been posed. Sadly (or mercifully, depending on your point of view) we will never find out – or will we? Over to you, Mark…

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